The Queen Bee Syndrome- Do Women Support Women At Work?

The Queen Bee Syndrome – Do Women Support Women At Work?

“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” This was boldly declared by Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, U.S.A., during a keynote speech in 2006. This controversial exclamation was also used as a call to action for women to support Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency. Albright statement however begs the question-Do women in leadership positions support their up and coming colleagues? Do women support each other?

The plethora of woman-led and woman-focused organizations, both internationally and locally, are testaments of women supporting women. Locally organizations such as the Association for Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago, Young Women Christian Association, Powerful Ladies of Trinidad and Tobago, Soroptomist International of San Fernando, Network of NGOS for the Advancement of Women, to name a few, contribute to the support and development of women. These organizations are fine examples of women working together for the benefit of women.

Yet in some quarters, if we zero in on women’s personal experiences, there is a persistent stereotype that suggests otherwise. Like the movie “Mean Girls”, women consistently compete with one other and seek to bring the other down. This may happen when a woman in a position of authority hoards information and does not share pertinent information with another female colleague or “showing up” another female at a meeting, or just being plain rude. A study by researchers at Arizona University indicates women are meaner to each other than they are to their male colleagues. The evidence consistently showed that women reported higher levels of incivility from other women than their male counterparts. Researchers found that women often focus on other women who are assertive and dominant.

The Queen Bee Syndrome

The phenomenon of women targeting other women in the workplace has long been documented as the “queen bee syndrome.” This syndrome is particularly evidenced as women rise in seniority. Queen bee syndrome was first defined by G.L. Staines, T.E. Jayaratne, and C. Tavris in 1973. It describes a woman in a position of authority who views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female. She feels threatened by the progress of other female subordinates and tries to pull them down. The queen bee is an appropriate analogy, with senior female professional being the ‘queen’ of the beehive and the beehive in this context is the workplace. The early research of queen bee syndrome in the 1970s found that women who held senior leadership positions in male-dominated environments were sometimes opposed to other women climbing the ranks.

Workplace Bullying

Many women may confess that they have worked in offices where there is a female bully who is hell-bent on making life miserable at work, quite like the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”. A University of Toronto study revealed that women who report to a female supervisor feel more stressed than if their superior is male. These women suffer from far more depression, insomnia, headaches and heartburn than if their boss is a man. But for male workers, the sex of their manager makes no difference. It is not unusual for a stereotypical queen bee to bully her subordinates and create obstacles to their career advancement. A 2017 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that among those who mistreat their co-workers, women were more likely to target other women (67 percent), compared men who bully other men (35 percent.)

The Three Threats

Michelle Duguid, an Olin Business School professor, has identified three major factors that keep women from supporting one another in the business world- competitive threat, collective threat and favouritism threat.

The Competitive Threat – When there is a small number of women in a workplace or team, you are more likely to be compared with other women. “Competitive threat is the fear that a highly qualified female candidate might be more qualified, competent or accepted than you are,” Duguid explained. In a male dominated environment where women need to work hard to “join” the men’s club, those who attain entry to the club may feel threatened by other women who might replace them.

The Collective and Favouritism Threat – Women are sometimes apprehensive of hiring more women and creating more diversity in their workplace. They may be scared of appearing as though they are favouring and supporting one another.
Mentorship and sponsorship

According to Robin Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School, research suggests that, despite stereotypes, women don’t fall victim to the so-called “queen bee” phenomenon — and that most women at the top do want to help women. So how can women leaders help?
Be a mentor- A simple way to support other women is to be a mentor. Mentorship has proven to be very valuable in assisting women develop their skills and prepare for more senior roles. You don’t have to be a member of the c-suite to provide guidance to another female employee as a mentor. A good mentor can assume the roles of a sponsor, advocate, protector, or a coach to provide support related to career development. Alternatively, if you need a mentor you should seek one who is one level above you. According to Ely, their advice can be invaluable since they made it to the next step in the management hierarchy fairly recently.

Whilst mentoring has its value, a study by Catalyst, a leading non-profit focusing on women inclusion, found that mentoring for women did not translate into promotions. Sponsorship is a more impactful strategy that has the potential to bring tangible results. If you are in a highly placed position at work, you should identify a high potential female whom you can sponsor. As a sponsor you should advocate for the person to get a promotion, mentioning their name in appointments meetings, recommend that they to get a prized assignment, and actively push them up the ladder. If you need to acquire a sponsor, you should look for a powerfully positioned champion, who has the power to get you visible and push you through the system.

Be the change
Despite studies showing that men engage in indirect aggression at similar or even higher rates than women, it is still widely believed that women are meaner to one another. Contrary to popular belief, recent research actually discovered women were more likely to fill senior positions in companies where a female had been appointed chief executive, according to the Centre for Creative Leadership. To continue this trend, women should be intentional in supporting one another. Put it on your “to do” list. Make it a goal for 2019. Having the odds stacked against women in the workplace is enough. Let the change begin in our conversations and our actions. Let us be the solution we seek.

Written by Charlene Pedro – HR Consultant & Trainer, Coach, Mentor, Keynote Speaker and Managing Director – Conventus Consultinc.


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